Ask any professional cook what their favourite time of year is and most will say Autumn.
Vibrant root vegetables are in abundance and the benefit of seasonal frost increases their sweetness. Dark leafy greens and pert leeks thrive in the cool air. The need for fresh, zingy flavours has long gone and this time of year is all about comforting rich and flavoursome dishes.
It’s also perfect for local game. We forgo this great natural product in favour of intensively farmed, often insipid, poultry, fearing that it’s maybe too strong for our palates. In reality game birds like pheasant and partridge are delicate and a gentle introduction to sampling this wonderful indigenous food of the land. Pheasant breasts can be lightly flattened with a rolling pin, dipped in flour, then a beaten egg and finally into breadcrumbs with chopped parsley and thyme added. Shallow fry in Broighter gold rapeseed oil until crisp and golden. Designed to convert the most determined anti-gamer!
There are a few ways of sourcing these wild treasures. Some good local butchers will stock them seasonally. You might know someone who hunts but you’ll have to do the plucking and cleaning yourself – not one for the faint of heart.
Linda Christie processes quail and seasonal wild birds at her farm on the outskirts of the village of Macosquin in County Londonderry. On a recent visit, I found her plucking partridges in front of a contraption that looked like a spiky mangle. The atmosphere was filled with the scent of scorched feathers. Anyone who has plucked even just one pheasant will appreciate the work involved in dealing with hundreds of birds – from pigeons to partridges and mallards to pheasants. She mainly supplies discerning restaurants but you can check her website, www.ballinteerfarmquail.co.uk for suppliers and she’s at the Causeway Coast and Glens Saturday market in Coleraine up until Christmas.
Because these birds are wild and free to roam, they’re naturally lean. Cooking them can be perilous as you need to ensure they have added fat or moisture. My first recipe is for partridge or pheasant that’s pot roasted with parsnips, dry cider and bacon lardons. Bacon lardons are off cuts from the fattier bits of bacon, that render down to crispy and golden pieces leaving some lovely fat to cook the bird in. This is a pretty fool proof way of cooking a whole bird that guarantees a succulent and tasty result.
Linda’s main product is quail which are available all year round. They’re small and so quite awkward to work with. The easiest way to prepare them is to spatchcock them – split down the back with sharp scissors and flatten out. In the summer you could barbecue them but now it’s best to seal off in a pan and finish in the oven.
My recipe uses ale and honey for glazing which makes them deliciously sticky. You could just eat them with your fingers like this but I’ve added a recipe for a walnut, date and ale “butter” to drizzle over them.
Once you’ve acquired a taste for these elegantly graceful birds you could move your tastebuds on to the more punchy pigeon or wild duck. Either way Linda does all the hard work so you don’t have to – so no excuses!